The Battle of Jersey
The Battle of Jersey was fought on 6th January 1781, and resulted in yet another victory against the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys. Even though it took place in the Channel Islands, it was technically part of the American War of Independence, because the French were allies of the Spams at the time.
In 1066 Duke William the Bastard of Normandy conquered England. At the time the Channel Islands were part of the Duchy. In 1204 the French defeated the English (much to everyone’s surprise, not least their own) and conquered mainland Normandy. The Islanders patriotically decided to stick with their Duke (i.e. the King of England). Only fourteen miles of the French coast, they were symbolically and strategically a thorough nuisance to the Frogs and were subject to numerous attacks as a result. However, by the late 18th century general opinion amongst the French high command was that it would be nearly impossible to successfully invade the Islands, and that even if they did get ashore (no guarantee given the extensive coastal defences, not to mention the treacherous hidden reefs and unpredictable currents surrounding the Islands) they could not hold them. In 1781, however, a soldier-of-fortune and adventurer named Phillipe de Rullecourt decided to have a go at conquering Jersey, despite having been involved in a farcical failed attempt two years previously.
De Rullecourt assembled a force of around 1,200 men, consisting of his own mercenaries – the Legion de Luxembourg – and a mixed force of French regulars and militia, plus artillery. Bizarrely, the French government were so determined to pretend they had nothing to do with the venture that the troops they supplied were officially listed as deserters. De Rullecourt had the ungentlemanly idea of attacking in the middle of winter, generally considered outside the campaigning season, so the British would have let their guard down. In fact the garrison’s senior officers were all off on Christmas leave and command of the troops was left to the 23 year old Major Francis Peirson, a man long on enthusiasm but short on experience, having never seen action.
De Rullecourt’s invasion was delayed by bad weather. Fortuitously this meant that the fleet arrived on the night of the 5th-6th January; in those days it was celebrated as ‘Old Christmas Night’ in Jersey, and the guard who were supposed to be watching the place where the French landed had slipped away to get pissed. Rather less fortuitously (for the French) the bad weather was still ongoing; some ships were wrecked, whilst the captains of others muttered "Merde" and promptly headed back to France. Only about 800 French troops – and none of their artillery – got safely ashore. This was a problem, as there were around 4,500 British troops in Jersey: the entire 95th Foot (Peirson’s regiment), five companies each of the 78th (Earl of Seaforth’s) Highlanders and 83rd Royal Glasgow Volunteers, 250-odd members of the Invalid Artillery, a small unit of Engineers and around 2,500 members of the Jersey Militia. De Rullecourt decided to brazen it out and headed straight for St Helier, the Island’s capital (attacking a few locals on the way) and managed to take the Lieutenant Governor, Major Corbet, prisoner. They convinced him (gullible twit that he was) that the Island was already in the hands of a vastly superior force who would destroy the town and slaughter the inhabitants if Corbet did not comply. He promptly surrendered. It seemed like the French were victorious.
The (British) Empire Strikes Back
The first task was to capture the main stronghold, Elizabeth Castle, a substantial offshore fortress that was cut off mainland six hours out of twelve, could be supplied by sea and was at the extreme range of the heaviest guns of the age – not that the French had any. De Rullecourt decided to attempt a show of force, but a cannonade from the Castle forced the French to beat a hasty retreat. Next they tried negotiating. A representative of the French offered a surrender order signed by Corbet, but this was ignored. He tried to claim that there were 10,000 French troops in the Island, and another 30,000 waiting to embark in France. Captain Mulcaster of the Engineers responded that this was all the better because “there will be more to kill”. Whether he didn’t believe the French claims, or whether he was just a bloodthirsty lunatic, remains a matter for debate.
Meanwhile, the Reverend Le Couteur, Rector of the Parish of St Martin and evidently a man for whom the phrase “the Church Militant” was more than just a metaphor, had turned up at the HQ of the 83rd. One of his parishoners had been bayoneted by a French soldier, something the good Reverend took exception to, and he demanded that action be taken. Captain Campbell, left in charge of the detachment of the regiment, assembled his troops and battalion of the Militia and headed for the French landing place. Le Couteur joined them with his very own field guns. The French rearguard put up a fight but were swiftly overwhelmed. Le Couteur was left in charge of bombarding the French fleet, whilst Campbell headed off in search of the main enemy force.
Back in St Helier the news was getting even worse for de Rullecourt. Peirson had likewise chosen to disobey Corbet’s surrender order, on the grounds that since he had signed it under duress and as prisoner it was not valid. He had assembled the 95th and 78th, with a large force of Militia, and now led an attack on the town. Skirmishing began on the outskirts, but eventually via a four-pronged attack they trapped the main French force in the Market Place (now the Royal Square) and a furious firefight erupted. Tragically Peirson was fatally wounded, but the British were rallied by his adjutant and a certain Captain Corbet (no relation of the Lieutenant Governor, as later he was unsurprisingly keen to make clear). The French resisted with surprising determination, until the order was given for the Redcoats to fix bayonets, at which point the fight seemed to go out of them. De Rullecourt, who rather less bravely had taken refuge in the Royal Courthouse, emerged holding Major Corbet by the arm. A group of disgruntled Grenadiers of the 95th opened fire, putting a bullet through Corbet’s hat and another one through de Rullecourt’s throat, killing him. The French had been defeated. Again.
Peirson and the other British dead – including, unusually for the time, the ordinary soldiers – were buried with full honours. The French fatalities were less well treated, with only de Rullecourt getting a marked grave. Major Corbet was court martialled for cowardice and dismissed from his post. In (rather late) recognition of their service, 50 years later the Militia were granted the prefix ‘Royal’, and later still they were awarded the battle honour ‘Jersey 1781’. (The regulars did not receive this – within a few years of the battle the 83rd and 95th had been disbanded, and by the date the honour was issued the 78th no longer existed in the same form they had in 1781). There was much rejoicing in mainland Britain and J.S. Copley, a distinguished artist, produced a large and famous (and questionably accurate) painting depicting Peirson’s death in suitably heroic fashion. Never again did the French attempt to invade the Channel Islands, lest they receive a further shoeing.